The Lafitte Greenway has not yet had its grand opening, and final touches are still pending, but that hasn’t stopped local residents from enjoying the mostly finished $9.1 million, 2.6-mile bike path and pedestrian park.
The anticipated amenities include a new outdoor fitness park, more landscaping, additional fencing and benches, according to the Friends of Lafitte Greenway, the nonprofit organization that envisioned the project.
But after years of planning and frustrating delays, residents who said they have waited long enough took to the linear trail over Labor Day weekend, strolling and biking along the path that cuts through the city from the edge of the French Quarter to near City Park in Mid-City.
“It’s the greatest thing in the city,” said teacher Casey Stanton, 29, an enthusiastic cyclist who was riding the path Monday with a friend’s dog in tow.
Stanton frequently travels by bike from his Mid-City home, and he said he had long anticipated a trail like the greenway, which boasts new pavement and flashing crosswalk signals at major intersections.
“It feels safe; the intersections are safe. It’s smooth. … It’s great for getting to the Quarter and just playing around,” he said. “Honestly, I’m so thrilled that they’ve finally gotten this together.”
The project, designed to transform an abandoned railroad corridor into usable green space, was first proposed under the Nagin administration. Work didn’t begin, however, until March 2014.
In July, the Department of Public Works said the greenway was 96 percent complete and was scheduled to open this summer.
As of Monday, the first phase of the park was mostly complete. The newly paved and painted trail extended from Lafitte and Basin streets, a block from the French Quarter, to St. Louis and North Alexander streets in Mid-City.
“Today, it’s the most people I’ve seen on it since I started walking it in June,” said bartender and Mid-City resident Charlie Kelly, 56, as he power-walked with headphones near Jefferson Davis Parkway.
Kelly said he walks the trail almost every day, mostly because he wanted a change of scenery from City Park. However, he was critical of the lack of shade when the sun is at its most searing.
“It’s not easy being green, I guess,” he said with a laugh about the lack of foliage. “I don’t see a lot of green space for a place called the greenway.”
Gabe Smith, a 32-year-old mechanical engineer from Ohio, echoed those sentiments as he navigated the trail’s French Quarter end with his wife.
“It looks like in two years it will be nice, but right now, it’s just a space under construction,” Smith said.
Plastic orange fencing still surrounded construction projects, and wide-open spaces lacked landscaping where Smith had stumbled onto the greenway near North Claiborne Avenue.
Sophie Harris, executive director of the Friends of Lafitte Greenway, said Monday that many improvements are still pending. Eventually, she said, more than 500 shade trees are expected to join additional landscaping improvements such as native plant meadows and bioswales.
She said she understands that contractors also are working to install fencing along a drainage canal that runs through part of the greenway, plus wooden bollards along St. Louis Street to prevent cars from parking and driving on the greenway. The park also is expected to get benches and trash cans.
Over the past year, the construction has been steady. Just last month, workers were installing the last bits of the 12-foot-wide trail for cyclists and pedestrians on the French Quarter end, Harris told residents at a recent Mid-City Neighborhood Organization meeting, according to Mid-City Messenger.
At that meeting, she also said crosswalk signals were being installed at North Carrollton Avenue, North Galvez Street, North Claiborne Avenue and North Jefferson Davis Parkway. On Monday, the signals appeared to be working.
“It is getting quite a lot of use already,” Harris said proudly, adding that locals began exploring the park as soon as the barriers blocking access were removed.
The Lafitte Greenway transforms one of the city’s historic corridors. Initially, the route was part of the Carondelet Canal, a waterway dug in the 1700s to ship goods from Bayou St. John to the French Quarter. Basin Street got its name from a turning basin where the canal ended.
Later, railroad cars rumbled along the corridor for decades, but after that, it fell into disrepair and weeds choked the path.
Although federal funds have helped pay for the bike path and lighting, residents, nonprofit organizations and small businesses also have pitched in to beautify the park and make it more user-friendly.
The federal program Local Foods, Local Places is helping to bring community gardens and farmers markets through partnerships with organizations such as Sprout NOLA and the Crescent City Farmers Market, Harris said.
Last month, the organization FitLot launched a project aimed at bringing a fitness park to the Sojourner Truth Neighborhood Center along the greenway.
The new center is to be built with money from a 30-day crowdfunding campaign. As of Monday, with eight days left in the campaign, more than $22,000 of the required $35,000 had been raised.
The design includes an octagonal tented structure with weight benches, swings and other exercise equipment. Personalized engravings would go on bricks donated by funders.
“Think of it as a gym membership for you and your neighborhood,” the fundraising campaign says.
About a week ago, more than 120 volunteers painted an 1,800-square-foot mural on the old brake tag station near Jefferson Davis Parkway. The mural was part of a “Greening the Greenway” community effort that commemorated the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Further in the future, a master plan for the greenway calls for a dog park and an amphitheater. Some neighbors have been vocal about wanting a space for volleyball and other recreational activities. But as of now, the master plan is limited to funds available, including those provided by a federal Disaster Community Development Block Grant.
The neighbors’ visions may come to fruition, Harris said, but at a later time and most likely with private funds.
In the meantime, locals are waiting for the more immediate improvements to take hold — especially those that might provide greenery or shade.
“There’s nothing to do except wait for the grass to grow, I guess,” Kelly said.
Editor’s note: This story was altered on Sept. 8 to clarify that Friends of Lafitte Greenway did not receive federal funds.